Cries and Whispers: On the Threshold of Death

I spent a weekend on the island of Gotland, including the northern island that is part of Gotland. Fårö is famous all over the world to cineastes as the home of Ingmar Bergman. That’s where he spent his last 40 years and that’s where he’s buried in a beautiful cemetery overlooking the ocean. He would have been 100 years old today and the centenary was recognized on the island this past week, including visits from Yorgos Lanthimos and Margarethe von Trotta.

During one of my nights at the hotel I decided to revisit a Bergman classic. This one is tough, but spellbinding.

Some time near the turn of the century, two sisters have gathered in a mansion to watch over Agnes (Harriet Andersson), a third sister who’s on her deathbed. Maria and Karin (Liv Ullmann, Ingrid Thulin) do their best to help Agnes, but the closest comfort comes from a maid, Anna (Kari Sylwan). It’s not an easy death; Agnes suffers from convulsions and the agony is heartbreaking. When she finally dies, the priest begs her corpse to try to reach out to ”this God”; her faith was always stronger than his. After Agnes’s death, her sisters and the maid grapple with the aftermath…

Red, black and white dominate
This was an early color film for Bergman who made, together with cinematographer Sven Nykvist, a careful choice as to what kind of film would most effectively bring out the colors. Red, black and white dominate in both production and costume design, brilliantly created by Marik Vos. The fact that the story plays out many decades ago is obvious, but never a defining part of the film.

Shooting it primarily at Taxinge-Näsby manor, the crew were given relatively free hands to use the interiors as they pleased. The darkly crimson walls become more or less symbolic of the deep, inner struggles of these four women. As the title indicates, you get your cries and you get your whispers. There’s something utterly primal over this film at times, the way Agnes suffers before death finally comes to liberate her, the way her sisters are inadvertently disgusted by what’s happening to her. Flashbacks reveal infidelity, additional suffering and even self-contempt among the sisters, including a harrowing scene where one of them mutilates her genitals with a shard of glass. The sisters find real proximity hard, which becomes obvious in a touching scene where Maria forces Karin to share an embrace. Academics have found clear signs of psychoanalysis in the film – the absence of God is still vibrant as a theme, but not as important as the psychology. The sisters are unable to provide much comfort for Agnes; it is up to the maid to give this dying woman all the solace she can, even using her body the way a mother would. There’s also a haunting scene where Agnes comes alive again – no wonder that Bergman wrote the script during a particularly difficult time out on Fårö, suffering nightmares.

The performances are astounding, especially Andersson and Thulin as Karin, the cold woman who (not incidentally) has the same name as the director’s mother. In spite of all the dark sentiments though, the film ends on a note of ”true happiness” and optimism within the family, sisters at ease and peace with each other.

The film was nominated for several Academy Awards and is now regarded as one of the master’s finest efforts. Maybe there is no God, but standing at Bergman’s grave, enjoying the sun and the strong breeze of the ocean, and then watching this film, kind of makes you wonder if he wasn’t divinely blessed after all. 

Cries and Whispers 1973-Sweden. 91 min. Color. Produced by Lars-Owe Carlberg. Written, directed and narrated by Ingmar Bergman. Cinemtography: Sven Nykvist. Production Design, Costume Design: Marik Vos. Cast: Harriet Andersson (Agnes), Kari Sylwan (Anna), Ingrid Thulin (Karin), Liv Ullmann (Maria/Maria’s mother), Anders Ek, Inga Gill… Erland Josephson.

Trivia: Original title: Viskningar och rop. Later a stage play.

Oscar: Best Cinematography. 

Last word: “‘Well, Sven, [‘The Touch’] was not a good film. You and I both knew it wouldn’t be. But I’ve got another idea, something I’ve dreamt. I see a road, and a girl on her way to a large house, a manor house, perhaps. She has a little dog with her. Inside the house there’s a large red room where three sisters dressed in white are sitting and whispering together. Do you think it could turn into a film?'” (Bergman recalling a conversation in 1971 with Nykvist, IngmarBergman.se)

 

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